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A Professor from Portugal Explained the Advantages of Russian Education

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International students appealed to the Government of Russia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Federal Security Service to let them return to Russia and continue their studies. The level of education is at stake here. A Professor at the University of Madeira (UMa) in this interview explains why Russian universities are still popular worldwide and what career one may build in Europe with a Russian diploma in hand.

The Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation announced that the new academic year would be run internally and start as usual on September 1. About 300,000 students of foreign origin are currently studying at Russian universities. With the beginning of the pandemic, many of them decided to come back home, while now they are having issues with making their way back. Under the current situation, foreigners are in general barred from entering Russia. Russian borders, as of now, remain closed even for those studying in the country. Only students coming from the states with which Russia reached bilateral agreements on the reopening of borders - Turkey, Tanzania, Switzerland, Abkhazia, and the UK - can arrive.

It is worth noting that if ranked according to the number of international students in universities Soviet Union was only behind the US and France already back in the late 1980s. One reason is that Soviet universities offered a wide range of engineering specialities. A second reason is that the USSR was generally perceived by Western countries as something exotic, and thus the country aroused genuine interest.

As Domingos Manuel Martins Rodrigues, a former student of Saint Petersburg Mining University who graduated in 1989, recalls "Before I turned 14, I had lived in Africa – in Mozambique and Angola. Both countries were then part of the Portuguese Empire and were granted independence only in 1975. I was born in a military family, we often moved from one state to another, and changing locations was something I never had problems with. Upon completing school education, I started thinking of international study opportunities. The countries I was most interested in were Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and the USSR, and the speciality I chose was geological exploration. Portugal is Europe's largest producer of tungsten. During the Second World War, this metal was the most important source of the country's income, and this is a historical lesson we should not forget. As for leaving to study abroad, there were several opportunities I could choose from. For instance, I could apply to the programme administered by the Portuguese Communist Party that was quite active internationally. Another option was the Union of Soviet Societies for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (USSF). What I did is I sent in the papers and began waiting. It was actually a day before the departure when I found out I got an invitation from the Soviet Union. But did I ever doubt? Not a bit! I knew there would be something totally new ahead, so I just dived right into this unique experience."

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Domingos is now a Professor at the Faculty of Exact Sciences and Engineering of the University of Madeira. He is also an established politician and internationally known expert in citizen engagement and participatory budgeting. Portugal is a state with a strong focus on supporting citizens' participation in political decision-making and valid mechanisms of monitoring related initiatives. Therefore Domingos is a regular guest at international conferences, notably at those held in Russia too. He has been on seven trips in the last two years, as part of which he stayed in St. Petersburg, Khanty-Mansiysk, Izhevsk, Kislovodsk. Yet when back then a young fellow arrived in Russia, he barely knew anything about the country.

"The first days upon arrival turned into anecdotes I have been telling all my life. As such, I saw a duvet cover in the dorm room for the first time ever. I could not figure out how to use it and decided it was some Soviet version of a sleeping bag. So I got into it and spent the whole night wondering why the hole was made in the middle. These trivial things are, however, nothing compared to university life. I have been myself teaching at the university for over 30 years now. Hence I may assure that what surprised me as a student is what sets apart the Russian educational system from the others even nowadays. One of these things is, of course, practical training.

It took me five years to earn the Specialist's Degree in Geological Prospecting. Of them, a year in total was devoted to field research. I travelled to Crimea and Leningrad Oblast as part of academic training, had several field trips to Buryatia, underwent an internship in Kazakhstan. That was indeed the best time of my life! Geological mapping and mineral prospecting, direct work with rocks, and the romance of exploration... It was field living, in tents, we cooked over a campfire, and there was also the equipment we had to carry ourselves. On one of those trips, I found a mammoth vertebra, which I am still keeping as a memory of that expedition. To my knowledge, there have not been many changes if we talk about studies at the Mining University," says Domingos.

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In Portugal, on the contrary, complete practical training does not exceed one or two months. Field trips on average last one or two days, a week in the best case. Domingos tried to make some amendments to the university's curricula when he first started teaching. Still, financial restrictions and challenges of reaching agreements with local enterprises prevented him from succeeding.

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On thinking of his own studies, the Portuguese researcher mentions the strictness of learning environments in Russian universities. Each student is provided at the start of the new school year with their timetable and the list of assignments they need to complete. Portuguese students, in turn, are not obliged to pass exams in a fixed period, thereby many of them accumulate academic debts by the time they are about to graduate.

"A student in the USSR, and now in Russia, will not pass to the next year, or they might be even expelled, if unable to meet minimum educational requirements. This kind of approach has a positive impact on students' academic achievements since they are motivated to work under constant pressure. Introduction of similar policies in Portugal is out of the question - students are too important as an income source for universities," notes Domingos.

As for other differences between the Russian and Portuguese education systems, the scientist paid particular attention to oral forms of examination. Through them, students learn how to express their thoughts, present their research and the company they work for. According to UMa's Professor, in Western countries, youngsters mainly fill out various tests or submit written assignments. In contrast, oral exams present significant difficulties for Portuguese youth.

"Accessibility of educational and scientific literature is another thing I would like to mention. All kinds of books - anthologies, catalogues, encyclopaedias - were freely available to Soviet students in the library. Besides, there was a store nearby - "Old Book" (in Russian: «Старая книга»). I used to go there often and occasionally bought geology books, for 30 kopecks each. In the end, when I was preparing to leave for home, I had to pack about 400 books on my speciality. It is not the same in Portugal, nor was it back when I was a student. Obviously, academic literature is widely available on the Internet these days. More than that, those textbooks from which our students learn today - they are provided to them in PDF. Nonetheless, there are still publications that have not been uploaded to the Web. At the same time, paper books become more and more expensive each year. Some works may cost up to 200 euros, which severely restricts students' purchasing power," sums up Domingos.

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Domingos' primary area of research is natural hazards - landslides, debris flows, floods, erosions - and what causes them. His work's focus is also on forecasting geological hazards and developing ground protection solutions. Suddenly occurring geohazards are a severe challenge to the region wherein natural disasters occur regularly and result in catastrophic damage to the Madeira Archipelago. For this reason, it is not surprising that the Professor's role as a Councillor at Funchal City Hall lied in taking care of construction matters and emergencies.

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"The most exciting experience I have had in my career comes from the time when I was in East Timor. This is a former Portuguese colony, which is, of course, an independent state now, that is located in the eastern part of Timor Island, next to Indonesia. On my first trip there, I was working as a volunteer. I helped Portuguese specialists with restoring the country from total devastation, following the Indonesian occupation and civil war. East Timor is somewhat similar to Madeira in terms of its humid climate; natural disasters occur there sporadically too. So I often visited the country. I had a great interest in what I was doing - for example, I took part in geotechnical surveying of landslides. I also did some research linked to remarking of the country's borders."

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Last year marked the 30th anniversary since the day Domingos had graduated from the Mining University. He and his groupmates gather in St. Petersburg every five years to talk and share professional experiences.

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"Alumni are a powerful force, thanks to which universities can establish and maintain international scientific and educational cooperation. Lots of foreigners went to the Soviet Union for university education. In my group, over a third of students came from African and Asian countries or from the former Soviet Republics. Each year educational institutions produce graduates of foreign origin who then return to their home countries and develop local economies. This way, they make a positive impact on the prestige of Russian education abroad and help to expand links between their home states and the Russian Federation," claims the Professor.

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One of the targets of the EU strategy for education in training is to ensure that by 2020 forty per cent of people have completed higher education. As per Público, Portuguese national newspaper, Portugal fell short of that figure, having reached 33.5% at the beginning of the year. In the meantime, after lifting coronavirus restrictions, Russia intends to further increase numbers of international students at universities. This may be seen as a perfect stimulus for Portuguese youth to come to Russia to study.